I wrote a six page analysis of Hitman: Absolution for my application to Blizzard this summer. Although I didn’t get the job, I thought I’d like to share my work, so here it is:
Due to the fact that the time for risk-taking lies in the next generation of video games, the video game equivalent of a “B movie” is being phased out in favor of more conservative efforts that appeal to a wider audience. The Hitman franchise has had a strong vocal minority over the years, but it has never had the success on the level of a yearly franchise like Call of Duty or Madden. Pre-release footage of Hitman: Absolution has been quite polarizing as series fans have noted the radical departure from the open ended gameplay of Hitman’s predecessors. Has Hitman: Absolution sacrificed a part of itself in order to appeal more to a mainstream audience?
From the opening of the first level, it becomes increasingly apparent that Absolution is not the same stealth action game Hitman veterans are accustomed to. Many of the gameplay mechanics have been changed completely since the last iteration, Blood Money. You are led by the nose through a linear level, down many corridors and cramped rooms, completing an objective in an orchestrated fashion which would eventually foreshadow how the rest of the game plays.
A large emphasis has been placed on the storytelling as each chapter transitions into the next. For better or worse, all the targets are means to an end in the overarching story of Absolution, and to some degree, this limits the amount of creativity in the environments as many of them are urban cityscapes. Additionally, there are more than a few levels where you are not given a target and must proceed from point A to B in a scripted sequence. Since Hitman has never been about the character of Agent 47, the whole thing comes off as contrived and an excuse for many of the big set pieces to occur.
The Hitman franchise has always been about player choice, not in the storytelling like in The Walking Dead or Mass Effect but in the decisions they get to make when approaching a situation. Hitman: Blood Money made a name for itself off its brilliant level design. In Blood Money, “The Murder of Crows” exemplified the embodiment of a typical Hitman level – multiple targets with a myriad of entry points to your target in a nonlinear, open environment, and this seldom exists in Absolution. Although there will be levels with multiple targets, they are almost always meant to be done in a very specific order. Within a level there will be clearly segmented areas separated by loading screens. You may be able to take down target A and B in any order you choose, but you cannot proceed to take down target C or D until you’ve finished the area that A and B were in. This changes a lot of the dynamics of the gameplay.
Because previous Hitman games featured seamless open levels, players had to live with the consequences for their actions. If a player decided to take out their targets haphazardly, bodies could be discovered at any time even if the player was halfway across the map. Guards would go into an alert phase and become more aggressive in their searches. In Absolution, however, once you cross a loading screen within a level you vindicate yourself from any mistakes you’ve made in the previous area. Guards in a new area are not affected by alerts in a previous area which often causes the player to make a mad dash for the loading screen after they’ve completed their objectives in an area. This is contrary to the entire philosophy of the Hitman series, and often breaks the finesse and any sense of tension that is created by the game.
Another suspect change to Absolution is how saving is handled within a level. Absolution eschews its predecessor’s save anywhere in favor of manual checkpointing. The player has to actively choose to checkpoint their game by walking up to one of the few insignia’s placed around in the environment. Admittedly, I understand why the developers wouldn’t want players to constantly revert back to save states, but this checkpointing is in many ways a far worse solution. If at any time you revert back to a previous checkpoint, the instance of the world is reset causing any guards that you’ve taken out, even the ones prior to the checkpoint, to respawn to their initial position. The only other way to have progress saved is by entering into the next area via loading screen. This is where the game tends to fall apart for many players. Because the checkpointing is so unreliable, players are often forced to go through levels and complete them in a single run without any mistakes. As a result, loading screens are their only saving grace and players are further encouraged to try to outrun enemies and load into the next area.
Scoring has never been a major component in the Hitman franchise as much as sense of accomplishment that goes with a perfect run, but Absolution goes the extra mile to externalize scoring and incorporate it as a major factor into the gameplay. Absolution tries to encourage all types of gameplay styles through this scoring system, whether the player wants to kill everyone in a level or if the player is trying to be a silent assassin, the developers claim they are both viable. However, in execution the amount of points given for player choices is arbitrary to say the least. For every kill that isn’t part of the objective, the player loses 200 points. The player can obtain these points back by hiding bodies, but there only exists a finite amount of places the player can hide a body in every level. Although specific environmental kills and objective kills give you thousands of points, killing everyone in your path is not as viable as the developers claim as far as the leaderboards are concerned.
The added emphasis to having extended gunplay as a feasible way to play the game is also quite baffling because of how the mechanics of shooting work. New to the Hitman franchise is the inclusion of a cover system in the same vein as Gears of War. Sadly, Absolution does not have the same level of polish to make this cover system work effectively. It is increasingly awkward to jump in an out of cover and travel from one piece of cover to the next. This is confounded greatly when you start to take into account the layouts of the environments and the angles at which you can attack a situation. Gears of War made this work because of how the environments were suited to have multiple pieces of cover and how snappy you could travel between cover points. Since Absolution’s environments are more based around compact urban environments, it’s hard to find a vantage point that doesn’t leave you exposed. I often found myself running far distances to get to a new piece of cover, only to be caught again. As a concession, a mechanic similar to “Dead Eye” from Red Dead Redemption has been added; you can slow down the game and kill multiple enemies provided you have another arbitrary element, instinct. Instinct can also be used to extend the length at which you can stay in close proximity with someone who is suspicious of you, the animation for which causes Agent 47 to cover his face, but it comes off as really contrived along with how disguises and detection has been handled.
Disguises have always played a large role in the Hitman franchise, but it has never been implemented as well as it could’ve been. In Blood Money, using outfits allowed you access into restricted areas of a level which would allow you to move freely among any NPCs (non-player characters) in that area. Absolution takes this concept and adds another layer to it; disguises will allow you to get into restricted areas, but people with the same outfit will see through it if you get within close proximity. To some extent this makes more logical sense, cops should be able to recognize the faces of other cops, etc., but the programming behind it is much more binary than rational. For example, there was a level that involved a masquerading as a courthouse judge, but no one becomes suspicious that your characters looks and sounds different from the actual judge. Yet, you’re constantly scrutinized if you disguise as a street vendor in a densely populated Chinatown plaza. These inconsistencies are sometimes hard to wrap your mind around and you’re constantly unsure of whether you’re character is in a safe or hostile state towards other NPCs.
To extend the length of the game, asynchronous multiplayer has been added in the form of Contracts mode. Users can create their own hits from the single player campaign and post their highest scores online for others to try. Rewards for completing contracts come in the form of currency to upgrade weapons and for the purchase of outfit to use within contracts mode. Even though this sounds like a good idea on paper, the contracts aren’t standardized. For example, one contract which is one of the most played, gives the same amount of currency in 10 minutes as one that could easily take 45 minutes. Because there is no moderation, people end up farming the contracts that give the most money per time spent rather than the ones that actually take skill and thought. It is far from a throwaway multiplayer experience, but it could’ve been implemented better or a more interesting supplement would’ve been a take on Assassins Creed III’s assassination multiplayer mode.
It is no surprise that Hitman Absolution had to change in order to broaden their appeal to the mass market. For many games this spells disaster, and for good reason – when you break the core of something that works and to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. That is not to say, however, that Hitman Absolution is not an enjoyable game, it is just marred by some poor game design decisions that hinder it from being a great game. If you can play by the rules set forth by the game, it is an enjoyable stealth action game that fans of the genre will appreciate, but it is far from the Hitman experience that fans have come to love.
Note: I played the launch version of Hitman: Absolution. Some of these issues may have been patched since then.